Tribute to a mentor

Jimmy Denley was the first person to find out Lara and I were getting married.

It was 1989, and Lara and I fell in love while working on the copy desk at the Birmingham Post-Herald. We’d been friends for a few years and spent a lot of time denying that we were more than just friends. When the friendship shifted to something much deeper and more permanent, we decided to get married. That was it. No dating. No “courtship.” We just decided it was right and that we’d get married.

But we were worried about our work situation. We were pretty certain the Post-Herald wouldn’t tolerate a married couple this way. There were nepotism rules and all that. We’d need to talk to the editor.

So we walked timidly into Jimmy’s office, announced that we were getting married and I offered to resign.

“No need for that,” Jimmy said in his Mississippi drawl. “As long as one of you doesn’t report to the other, we can make it work.”

Jimmy saw the value we brought to the table and was willing to risk having a married couple on his copy desk. It was one of his gifts. He could recognize a good thing when he saw it. FIfteen years later, Lara and I still work for the company that owns the Post-Herald, and I like to think the company is better for it. I know we are.

Our careers took us from Birmingham to Albuquerque, Denver, Austin and finally, Knoxville, where Jimmy entered my life again. This time, he was moving from Abilene to Memphis to take over the website. And I was worried. Jimmy was “old school,” a great, detail-oriented third-generation print journalist. In our dot.com fueled arrogance, we didn’t believe a print dinosaur possibly could “get” the Internet.

But Jimmy knew a great thing when he saw it. He turned our Memphis site around, made it profitable and helped it produce great journalism. He truly “got” new media, but more importantly, he never lost sight of the journalistic values and ethics from his print days.

On many occasions, I’d call Jimmy to bounce things off him. He was a voice of calm and sanity is swirling online chaos, and I could count on him for perspective. His counsel was invaluable, and his can-do attitude was refreshing.

Jimmy died yesterday of leukemia. But he lives on as we transform our business into a new medium. Thanks for everything you did for us, Jimmy. We’ll never forget you.

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